The Princesse de Lamballe’s shell cottage, known in French as chaumière des coquillages, was built for her by the Duke of Penthièvre between 1779 and 1780. The Duke was her father-in-law and father to her dead husband, the Prince de Lamballe. He died of syphilis on 6 May 1768, and her father-in-law, who had lost his wife years earlier in 1754, insisted that she come and mourn at his fine estate in Rambouillet, France.
Rambouillet’s close proximity to Paris and Versailles (about 30 miles southwest) allowed it to serve as an occasional seat of government. Moreover, it was a picturesque spot used by the Duke and the Princess to escape the formality and etiquette of Versailles. It was also the perfect spot to relax as Rambouillet’s forests were populated with game and thick with verdant green glens.
The estate of Rambouillet has a chateau that dates from the 1300s. It stands near the edge of the Forest of Rambouillet with a pentagonal bastioned footprint and with several towers, one of which is where King Francis I died on 31 March 1547. The Princess’s shell cottage is about a mile away from the castle, next to a meandering stream and a few tall trees. The Duke hired architect Claude-martin Goupy to complete it.
The cottage designed was a rustic and square building with a couple of windows and two exterior doors (the main door and a smaller door that entered into the changing room). It has a magnificent dark and thick thatched roof. (If you are interested in learning about the process of creating a thatched roof, Regina Jeffers wrote, “Crafting a Thatched Roof,” and you can read it by clicking here.) The exterior was created from mortar and stone of a beige hue, and embedded in the exterior walls are several ox bones, which enable the rain water to drain away from the cottage.
As rustic as the cottage is on the outside, it is ornate and sophisticated on the inside. The main room or salon is a circular room about 20 feet in diameter. Its ceiling looks domed but is actually flat. The room also contains “Doric pilasters, mother-of-pearl domes, and walls encrusted with fifteen different types of sea shells.” Many of these shells came from Normandy and Brittany and had been given to the Duke by his grandfather, Louis XIV. The shells numbered in the thousands and almost every square inch on the walls are covered with them, hence the cottage’s name.
After completion of the cottage’s construction, the salon was filled with custom-built furniture designed to fit the circular shape of the salon. The designer and creator of this furniture was François II Foliot. He took over the establishment (“au duc de Bretagne”) that his grandfather, Nicolas-Quinibert Foliot, had founded. In 1767, Nicolas-Quinibert had been the sole provider for furnishings at the royal residences of Versailles, Trianon, Compiegne, Fontainebleau, and Saint Hubert, so when François took the business over, he had a built-in client of well-to-do and rich patrons, such as the Duke.
A smaller room also exists inside the cottage. This room is rectangular in shape and functioned as boudoir or a changing room. You can enter one of two ways: Either inside from the salon or from outdoors through the smaller exterior door. This tiny room is painted with soft greens and pastels. There are also numerous individual framed moldings, as well as the ceiling, that contain paintings of flower and birds. A unique surprise awaited guests who came to the visit the Princess in the 1700s. At one end of the room, on either side of the large looking glass, there are two cupboards that previously held automatons said to be “negro figures that provided perfume or powder to visiting guests.”
The cottage was supposedly used by the Princess to escape and enjoy quiet time. She enjoyed reading Italian poetry and perhaps she read in the cottage or she may have escaped to play her harp or to just be alone or spend time with friends. Later, when Rambouillet was purchased by Louis XVI in 1783, Marie Antoinette may have also entertained in the shell cottage or used it as a private escape on occasion.
When the French Revolution broke out, the chateau (and likely the shell cottage) were emptied of their furnishings and the estate neglected. Later, during the reign of Napoleon I, the Emperor visited the Rambouillet estate several times. Another royal connection to Rambouillet involves Charles X. He signed his abdication here and Rambouillet is where his exile started too.
Between 1896 and 2009, the estate functioned as a summer residence for the French Republic. Today, however, Rambouillet is managed by the Centre des monuments nationaux. When I visited the site in 2015, ongoing repairs and refurbishment of the chateau and the cottage were occurring.
- Walton, Geri, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante, 2016